Short Story Friday

First Love

by Braden Davis

Seth was just slipping through Tucson, the borrowed Dodge pickup purring smoothly through the light traffic, when the horse on the Marlboro billboard winked at him. The Texas Tornadoes were waltzing through the stereo, the winter night just cool enough for the heater, and the moon round and bright behind the sparse Tucson skyline. The billboard sat tall on the right side of a slow bend in on I-10 and Seth had time to look at it for several seconds. About three hundred yards away the horse blinked his only visible eye and Seth opened both of his a bit wider while he smiled and said to himself, “looked like that horse just winked at me.” He watched the chestnut horse with the wild, flared nostrils, as he kept the Dodge humming between white lines and just as he was passing the billboard, the horse seemed to wink again.

“What the,” Seth began. His foot eased off the gas and he checked his rearview, seeing only the dark back of the big sign.

The Dodge moved on its own into the slow lane. Seth corrected with a slight jerk and kept the vehicle from moving onto the shoulder. He turned down the stereo. He always turned down the stereo when he needed to think. Tori hated that.

He looked at digital clock on the stereo, still flashing 12:00. Broken or just needing to be reset, he didn’t know, but it couldn’t be much past 10. Seth let the pickup continue its rightward pull and eased into the upcoming exit. “What the hell,” he thought. “Could use some caffeine anyway.”

A flashing white rectangle begged his attention to the right. El Conejo Lounge. Seth revised his plan and immediately visualized the next several hours. Soda, Beer, then tequila, in that order. It had been almost three years. He’d quit for Tori. Now Tori was in Houston. What the hell was the point? Somewhere down deep inside himself he felt he’d break down this trip. He’d thought he’d get farther than Tucson. Las Cruces, maybe, or somewhere in Texas. He imagined a little dive bar in a dusty Texas town. Somewhere close enough so that when he showed up at her mom’s she’d be able to still smell the booze. Give her an excuse not to come back. Here’s your damned truck.

But the winking horse beckoned a quick exit, not ninety-nine miles into the long trip. And the Dodge idled in park outside the painted brick building that alternatively glowed violet, white, then back to black, as the flashing sign did its work. Two young Mexican men stood talking outside, propped against a short wooden fence. The Texas Tornadoes dissonant with the heavy bass thumping from the walls of the tavern. Seth turned down the stereo again so the music from the bar would make sense. It didn’t. Loud and out of tune. The kind of bar band that sounded worse the closer you got. Seth put the Dodge in reverse. Bad music gave him a headache. He couldn’t start old bad habits with bad music. He hated bad music. He hated Tori’s music—thumps and frightful whistles, monotonic words he couldn’t understand. It all sounded the same.

He pulled the Dodge back onto the frontage road, intending to climb back onto the freeway. Construction detours confused him a little, and forced him farther down the line. He saw the unlit eastbound entrance sign too late and found himself crawling under the freeway and coming out on a frontage road on the opposite side from where he started. He headed east on the road, figuring to catch the next freeway onramp and get out of the construction mire. The frontage road ended and emptied into a dirt parking lot that sat under the florescent flush of a huge Motel 6 billboard, giving the smattering of cars, trucks and semis a yellowy glow. A square, grey, slump-block building sat on the other end of the lot, the words “Elmer’s Pub” painted blood red on the side. Once again, Seth put the Dodge in park and turned down the stereo. The muffled sound of a bass guitar walked a twelve-bar blues that seemed to bleed through the walls of the bar. It looked much like the other place, but the music was different. Seth’s music. He turned off the engine.

The place seemed more crowded than he could observe from the cars outside. Seth found an empty stool at the end of the long bar, not far from the door and felt his eyes burn as he squinted through the hazy din. That’s something he didn’t miss. A burly, bald man with a salt-and-pepper beard nodded at him and continued filling a handful of mugs with beer from the tap. Across the bar, in the corner, the band finished the blues song. A three-piece, and wow, was the guitar player good. He charged off on a song-ending stinger, wild, intricate and entertaining. Seth tried to watch the guy’s fingers, but he was too far away. Why bother anyway; Seth was just mediocre enough to recognize the people who were really good. The guy finally let go a last note that whined out at the end of a long bend. A few patrons clapped lightly. Oh, what they didn’t know.

A large knuckled hand was suddenly in his face and a deep voice behind it, “Elmer,” the bartender said.

Seth looked up into the man’s coffee eyes and absently offered his hand and they shook. “Seth,” he said.

“Whadya need?” Elmer asked.

Seth squinted, still getting used to the air of his past. Need? A good woman who could stand him, maybe? A good strong drink to make him forget, if only for an evening, the love of his life who did stand him, if only for three years?

Elmer waited, his hairless brows raised.

“Just a Coke.” Seth fished in his front jeans pocket for cash. He put two twenties on the bar. More than he’d need for a soda. He knew that and now Elmer knew that.

The band started again. The guitar guy started it with a whiney bend that sounded like a good steel guitar. How’s he doing that? Seth looked but couldn’t tell. The bass and drum then came in with a slow country shuffle and then the guitar guy was singing “I fall to pieces.” Patsy Cline he’s not. A rough, whiskey voice. Not particularly pleasant but Seth liked the song. At least the guy stayed in tune.

Seth looked around the bar. Locals mostly, it seemed, despite being a stone’s throw from one of the busiest interstates in the country. An older crowd, mostly couples. No one looked under 40 in this place. It felt comfortable even though Seth was a graze under 40 himself, though Tori always said that his tall thin frame made him look older. The place looked old—peeling pale green paint along one cement wall, the other too far away to see in the dark smoky din. The lacquered bar glazed smooth like an old river rock, pitted in places from scattered coins, glasses, and maze of yesterday’s memories. Seth ran his hand across the glassy surface, feeling the imperfections before he could see them, until every finger found a depression to rest within. It had taken Tori three years to find his imperfections. Less time than that, probably, but three years to dig at them until she was sure no amount of digging was going to get them out. The digging just made them deeper and more pronounced. Potholes that you know are there, but still jar you unexpectedly in the worst moments. Tori’s only blemishes, in Seth’s opinion, were her poor taste in music and her damnable ability to find his faults—laser lightening focus. She didn’t even cheat, as beautiful as she was and as many opportunities that probably came her way selling those Scottsdale houses. Seth had asked her if she cheated enough times that she finally said she wished she had. Seth imagined her with that guitar player, dancing near the front of the stage, watching his fingers. No, that didn’t fit Tori. She doesn’t like guitar players.

Elmer worked his way back to the end of the bar, sliding a cold glass of Coke into Seth’s hand and nodding, leaving the money on the bar.

“First one on me,” Elmer said, moving to fill a shot.

“Now you tell me.” Seth smiled. “I should have ordered champagne.”

Elmer grinned back, an eye tooth missing. “Then I wouldn’t have told ya.”

The band finished the Patsy Cline and moved right into “Six Days on the Road” without more than a hiccup of dead air. Several patrons whooped and the small dance floor filled quickly. Clearly, a crowd favorite.

Elmer moved back to Seth’s end of the bar, leaning on his elbows as if to take advantage of the brief respite. “Where you from?” he asked Seth without looking at him.

“I’m coming from the Phoenix area. Just driving through,” Seth answered, watching a stout, stiff legged man whirl a freckled blonde in a short denim skirt through a jitterbug, thinking the girl looked a little bit like Tori. A little bit.

“What made you stop here? Our reputation for free soda pop?”

Seth chuckled, “Yeah, that and the horse.” He took a long drink of the cold soda, still watching the girl move. Nice legs, curvy, a good dancer.

“What horse?”

Seth lost the denim skirt in the crowd. “The Marlboro horse.” That still seemed pretty weird when he let himself think about it, which he hadn’t. “The horse on the billboard just before the exit. It looked like it winked at me.”

“Sounds like you got a head start on your night before you even got here.” Elmer seemed to eye him a little closer.

Seth stopped looking for the blonde to dance back into his view and looked directly at the bartender. “Elmer, I haven’t had a drink in exactly two years, ten months and fifteen days.”

Elmer took the two twenties on the bar in front of Seth, folded them twice then stuffed them into the one front pocket of Ed’s white oxford shirt. “Then Cokes are on me until you leave.” He took Seth’s half-filled glass and topped it. “Where you headed?”

The blonde and her partner were back in view now and the guitar player was singing about how it’s been about a week since he’d kissed his baby goodbye. “I’m going to Texas.” He hadn’t kissed Tori in at least a month.

“Why you wanna go to Texas?” Elmer asked.

“Ah, my wife,” Seth answered. Maybe she was still his wife. He wasn’t sure.

“Then you don’t need to flirt with that gal you’ve had your eye on.”

“What?” The blonde twirled and kicked up one leg and he found himself watching again. “She looks a little like my wife, that’s all.”

Elmer grunted.

The guitar player launched into his second solo of the song—a spectacular frenetic fall that started high on the neck and brought the band back down to one last chorus. “Who IS this guy?” Seth asked.

Elmer looked toward the band and scratched at his graying beard. “That’s Guitar George.”

“He knows all the chords?” Seth asked, chuckling as he finishing the classic Dire Straits line.

“He’s my therapist and savior,” Elmer said.

“What do you mean by that?” Seth asked.

Elmer smiled and spread his long arms out as the song ended to loud applause and the crowd milled back with renewed thirsts. “You should meet him. Tell him about your horse.”

“Thanks folks,” George muttered into the microphone. “We’re gonna take a little pause for the cause. Back in a few.” He unstrapped the lime green Fender and leaned it against his amp.

Music started up through the band’s P.A., but it was too soft for Seth to make out clearly. The bar filled quickly and Elmer poured drinks and filled mugs, moving like a large cat. He filled up a large glass of what looked like orange juice and slid it toward the end of the bar in Seth’s direction.

“Thanks, amigo” George said as slipped beside Seth and collected his drink.

Seth turned to look at the guitar player, watching him guzzle the orange drink, noticing his thin, dry, talented, fingers, a cigarette burning between two of them, fitting in like an extra digit.

“I sure enjoyed your playing,” Seth said.

George stopped drinking and squinted toward Seth. “Thanks, man. Glad you like it.”

“I used to play a little myself, nothing like you. But enough to know that you’re something special.”

“Thanks, man.” George finished the drink, took a long drag on his cigarette, and slid the glass back toward Elmer who caught it with his right hand as he continued to fill tap beers with his left and nod at a older woman in a pony-tail leaning across the bar giving drink orders. Elmer pulled a carton of orange juice from under the bar, refilled George’s glass and slid it back his way.

George caught the glass again and tipped it toward Seth. “What kind of axe you got, man?”

“Me? Well, I used to have a Strat, pre-CBS, American made.”

“Used ta?” George asked. “What happened to it?”

Seth went into his familiar line, “Ah, the wife made me sell all my good toys.”

George shook his head as he squinted through the smoke around his face. “Crying shame, man.”

Crying shame that the fifteen hundred dollars he got for it—probably half the true value—was mostly used to pay Tori’s little sister to house sit and take care of her King Charles Spaniel while they took that stupid trip to San Francisco. A thousand bucks for a dog walker.

“That’s a ’68 Strat up there I’m banging on,” George said. “You wanna play it?”

Seth chuckled into his Coke. “What?”

George took another drink of his orange juice. “You don’t lose a guitar like that and not lose something inside you, man.” He took another drag from his cigarette and offered his hand. “I’m George.”

“Seth.” George’s hand felt rough, dry, and prickly like tree bark. “But, I can’t play your guitar.”

“Man, it’s like swimming.” George made a motion with both hands in front of his face, one holding the glass of juice, the other holding the cigarette. “The bike will move, man, you just have to jump in the stream.”

Seth chuckled at the mixed metaphors as Elmer put another Coke in front of him and nodded.

“Tell him about your horse,” Elmer said, before moving away to fill more orders.

George swung the cigarette hand in a wide arc, bumping Seth’s arm and dropping ash on his shirtsleeve. “Music is inside you, man. Just gotta jump back in and see where the river takes you.”

Most rivers he’s been in lead downhill, Seth thought. Fast, like waterfalls. He wondered what kind of rapids and rocks were waiting in Texas. Seth brushed at the fallen ash on his shirt and watched it disintegrate and disappear, leaving a freckled pale gray stain that would probably never go away.

George wrapped an arm around Seth’s shoulder and pulled him away from the bar and away from his thoughts of Tori. “Let’s go swimming, man.”

Seth protested as George led him through the crowd; most seemed oblivious, but two guys stood up from a small round table near the bandstand as they approached. The tall, dark-haired one looked like the bass player he’d seen earlier, though he seemed much younger than Seth would have guessed from a distance. The shorter, stockier man moved behind the drums.

“Really, George. I’m just a hack. I can’t play your guitar,” Seth said.

“Then let it play you, man.” George nodded at his band mates as he stepped up on the short stage, picked up his lime-green Fender Stratocaster and handed it to Seth. George reached behind his amp and retrieved a bright orange Fender Telecaster. “I’ll play the Tele.”

Seth held the Strat in his hands. It felt warm and alive, but the green paint on the body looked odd, uneven, and out of place, like a saguaro cactus in Houston.

“Painted it myself,” George said. “The Tele too.” He seemed proud of this? Probably lowered the value by half, in Seth’s opinion. He knew he was thinking like Tori. Practical. Purposeful. What did she call it? Pragmatic.

The bass player clucked his lips as he picked up a shiny, black Peavey five-string. “You should see what he did to his Martin acoustic.”

“Hot pink?” Seth asked.

The bass player and drummer laughed aloud. “Where’d you get this guy?” the drummer asked.

George threw the leather strap around his shoulder and hooked it to the Tele’s body in one seamless, smooth motion. Guitar George. He turned his ear toward the hollow body of the Telecaster and checked the tuning, adjusting the B-string slightly. He nodded to Seth. “You’re wireless, man, so jump in.”

Seth had the strap around his shoulders and his fingers on the buttery, rosewood fret board before he realized what he was doing. He couldn’t sit in with these guys. This was crazy. But he made the short step up to the bandstand and slipped between George and the bass man, feeling the hum of the amp tingle his skin as he held the lost friend in his hands. He felt fuzzy and happy, the foreboding Texas doom fading in the smoky haze of the bar.

George turned a knob and the music through the speakers disappeared. Another knob and the electricity of the stage heightened. Seth could see several bar patrons look toward the stage. George looked at the bass player and held up four fingers. He turned to the drummer and said, “a little 12-bar boogie.”

Seth looked at the bass player and whispered, “what are you playing?”

“I don’t know which song,” the bass man replied, “but four fingers up means it’s in E. Four sharps. Fingers up are sharps, down are flats.”
Seth felt confused, but he knew E. His fingers formed an open E chord on the Strat, waiting. Waiting for what? The next three minutes of his life held as much uncertainty as the last three years.

George leaned into his microphone as it crackled to life. “Like to introduce my friend, Ed.” A few people clapped lightly. “Just another cowboy the horse dragged in.”

“It’s Seth,” Seth whispered, but figured nobody cared anyway.

The drummer counted off, “One, two, three…”

The snare drum popped twice at four and then the bass started walking through the E chord as George stamped through a blues riff that sounded a little like Stevie Ray. Seth found a hollow place in their river of sound and strummed through the chord, remembering to dampen the strings with the heel of his right hand so they wouldn’t ring too loud and drown the lead. It seemed to work. It didn’t sound bad. George’s lime green guitar felt fluid and alive, the strings pulsing under Seth’s fingertips, sending a stream of syncopated infatuation through his body. It had been too long.

People shuffled toward the dance floor. They couldn’t resist either.

“Why do I need a woman,” George sang. He really didn’t sing very well, but his rough voice was soulful, more whiskey than orange juice.

“Tell me, why do I need a woman” he sang again, his guitar answering in a bluesy whine.

“Yeah, tell me why why I need a woman,” George grabbed the mic with his right hand, leaving his left to hold and hammer the Tele’s neck. He looked at Seth and winked. “When I got this old guitar.”

***

 

Monsters & Angels: The Series

 

A lone soldier on night watch. A single bullet through the heart. Every light in Paris flickers—the city’s thundering silent scream.
When Commander Raimond Banitierre was assassinated, French Revolutionaries lost their gallant leader. After a villain’s offer of eternal life condemned him to slavery, Raimond rebelled again, driving his vampire comrades to freedom.
Raimond escapes to Savannah, Georgia where his dream of becoming a doctor comes true. During his trial-by-fire residency on the Civil War’s battlefields, he discovers his true calling—the power to preserve memories and dignity in the face of death. His chance meeting with a beguiling mortal nurse ignites passionate nights and a long overdue crack in the door to paradise.
Vicious flames and an unholy miscalculation deliver Raimond back to the depths of hell. Being arrested for treason makes him wish for death and the arrival of Prince Draven Norman appears to be the final nail in Raimond’s coffin. Will the prince’s eccentric judgement grant Raimond a true reprieve? Is Draven’s invitation to join New Orleans mystical royalty an extension of his own treachery, or the next step in Raimond’s miraculous journey?
Has the legendary Crescent City found a spirit noble enough to protect her future?

♦♦♦♦♦

 

Fledgling nurse Sorcha Alden knew she had the skills to save lives, but she never dreamed that her own life would be the one in danger.

Driven by tragedy to honor her family name, Sorcha embarks on a journey that takes her from the bleak but familiar streets of New York, through the sultry and seductive city of New Orleans, and into the brutal jungles of Nepal. Forging friendships and carrying on her mother’s mission of healing was her dream. Plunging into a love affair with the mysterious Dr. Ashayle, could have been a fairytale.

Being murdered and waking up as a blood-thirsty monster—became her living nightmare.

Torn away from a life that had just begun, Sorcha returns to New Orleans as a newborn vampire, forced to start over in a cutthroat underworld of devilry and decadence. Complicated politics, bitter rivals and jealous ancestors stand between her and the promises she’s still determined to keep.

In a realm where the boundary between good and evil is as murky as the Mississippi River and immortal does not mean invincible, will Sorcha ever risk her shattered heart and love again? Can the magical harmony of the Crescent City give her enough courage to fulfill her eternal destiny?

Sorcha’s final word will make your jaw drop!

 

AnneMarieAndrus.com

 

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Short Story Friday

Big Time Deals in the Big City

By Arbor Winter Barrow

 

Devina Gershwin knew every corner of the big city of Kestavan. It was a city the size of a small ocean and filled with just as many people as fish. Devi had been raised from birth in the slums on the outskirts near the deep, thick jungles of the rest of the planet. Kestavan was the only human habitable spot on the planet, everything else was ruled by the native species of wolflike packs that roamed the jungles. Large energy fields drew a line between the city and the jungle and neither mixed.

The spaceport at the center of the city was the heart of the tiny civilization in the middle of the galactic nowhere. The skyscrapers that had been raised around the spaceport turned the city center into a crown and the people who lived there were just denizens of a palace that churned around it.

The king of this place, the dealer of hands, of fate, and everything in between was named Gev Horrton. Gev Horrton was the oft-unseen king of this tiny patch of land, no one, especially as low class as Devi would ever get to meet him. Except under one condition. Every year on the summer solstice a city-wide card tournament took place and this year Devi was going all the way to the top. If she won every tournament from the lowest to the highest she would get the honor, if you could call it that, of playing against the king himself. That’s what she was going for, that was the challenge that was ahead of her. She was determined and driven to change her lot in life and she had the skills to do it now.

It had taken her nearly ten years to save up for the entry fee and the last bit came from the sale of all her worldly possessions. Her favorite speeder bike, her computer, her communicator, all of it was gone now. She had moved out of her apartment the day before the rent was due, and slept in the subway station that night. In the morning she had gotten up and taken the subway to the Central Office where entrants could apply for the tournament. In three short days she was going to the largest casino in Kestavan to crawl her way to the top.

Devi refused to be complacent anymore. This place was seen as a safe haven for every sort of crime and criminal and she had been raised as one of its pawns. Gev Horrton and his cronies had a tight grip on the city populace and anyone who dared try to change or question the tiny aspects of their society.

It wasn’t uncommon for feuds to end with one side ending up outside the energy field only to be eaten or killed by the native wildlife or just left to starve to death as little of the native plantlife was edible for humans. Her own family had gotten on the bad side of one of Horrton’s men and they had died out in the jungles. She had been left to fend for herself and if it weren’t for the kindness of a few strangers she would have died years ago.

She had a plan and that plan involved going all the way to the top and changing things from the top down. The populace was unhappy, but so few of them knew what to do about it. Devi had learned the hard way how to wheel and deal from the inside of the slums and the darkest corners of the city. She knew exactly the path she would have to take to get to the top, she had the play the game and had to make them believe that she was part of the game.

With her tournament entry fee placed Devi had only a handful of credits left.

Even with her skills and the amount she could make in one game it had still taken ten years to save up for the entry fee. It was a tournament for the super rich and a slumkid like her had a one in a billion chance at getting in.

This was the year, and in three days she was going to the top.

***

Devi spent her last credits on a nice, sleeveless suit and a nice meal. She was going to win in style and with a full belly. Nothing could crush her confidence. The day of the tournament she showed up to the entrance, flashed her entry chip and took her place among the other entrants.

Rithcards was the most popular and hardest card game in the galaxy. There were over a thousand cards in each deck and nearly as many ways to win the game. Each suit was four cards and the combinations you made from your hand over the course of the game determined the point values. Devi was good at it. She had been playing since her mother taught her as a child and she had learned to count cards before she had learned the names of the constellations in the sky.

She had supported herself for all of her 22 years by playing small games in the dark backrooms of the city. Even though gambling was far from illegal and most crime was given a pass, some of the games she had played were so high-risk Gev Horrton himself would have come down hard on the people playing. Devi had won just enough games to fill her pockets and keep a roof over her head but not enough to draw attention to herself. A master rithcard player would be easily noticed in this city and she wasn’t ready to make her name known until the day of the tournament.

The tournament bracket lit up the ceiling of the main room and Devi found her name easily at the bottom of the lists. She was an unknown and that was fine with her. A loud chime echoed across the room. “Places everyone!” A woman said over a loudspeaker and the room filled with the initial conversations and card shuffling.

Devi looked at her first opponents and breathed a sigh of relief. As much confidence as she had in her abilities as a rithcard player she could see the green gills on these people. They had the money to get themselves into the tournament, but not the skill. She would defeat them easily, but at the same time she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself too quickly. There was a chance that if she displayed too much skill too early on that the tournament heads would find a way to eliminate her from the game permanently.

The tournament had five rounds, of seven games each, and for the first round the tournament room had over 1000 tables with 5 people each. In the fourth round, the winners with the highest skill points over the course of the tournament would be in the fifth and final round. The winner of the tournament would get to play one-on-one with Gev Horrton himself.

Here’s what you need to know about Devi’s skill, she was a thinker, she was a skilled card counter, and capable of figuring out the micro-expressions of the players around her.

The first round she didn’t wipe the floor with her opponents but let them think she was struggling along with the rest of them.

The second round she was in a whole other world of competition, these people actually had money and skill. But all the same, she hid her abilities. WIth the second round Gev Horrton’s men were watching her and every other player. One of these people, the best of the people, would be the one to go against Horrton. It was their job to look for possible opponents that might actually be a threat to Gev Horrton. She nearly lost as many times as she won, she let herself float in the middle of the pack, letting others take the limelight and yet others to crash and burn. As the fifth and final round began Devi didn’t let an ounce of fear mar her confidence.

In the fifth round, all her opponents were long time players, skilled, and probably nearly at the same level of criminal renown as Gev Horrton himself. It wasn’t uncommon for an unknown like herself to rise in the levels, but it happened rarely and with every round she won, she saw the attention wavering in her direction.

One of her opponents in the final round suddenly stood up and threw up all over the table. The woman was staring at her drink like it had betrayed her. Devi was suddenly aware of the fact that Horrton’s men had been the ones bringing the drinks. This woman had done little to hide her very significant skill and therefore was now being taken out of the game for it. She was eliminated from the game as she fell to the ground and started having a seizure.

Devi grasped her cards and breathed deeply.

And she triumphed. She won the tournament by what most would call the breadth of a hair. Devi had played the game. But she hadn’t won yet. They weren’t worried about her, they weren’t even concerned that some unknown player that had apparently lucked her way to the top. They all assumed that she would be defeated by Gev Horrton. That was their mistake, that was Horrton’s mistake.

They began the one-on-one, and Devi paid little attention to the crowd that milled around watching them. She knew some of their faces from having played against them, and others she didn’t. She put all her focus on Gev Horrton. He walked down the aisle of tables waving at everyone like the king he thought he was. She knew the moment before he sat down what his tells were, she knew the moment he was given his cards, what weaknesses he would have, she knew when they put down their first suit of cards just what she needed to do to win.

They played seven games. She won some, she lost others. And as he did, in the final game, in all his arrogance and hubris Gev Horrton pulled his gold plated owners chip out of his jacket and placed it on the table.

“If you win this round, you win it all,” he said. The move was supposed to make his opponents nervous, to make them make mistakes, and to push too hard. Devi had watched all the games on the GalaxNet in the past 15 years and knew this tactic so well.

“I have a philosophy, Mr. Horrton.” Devi said, looking at her cards. Her face betrayed none of the emotions she felt roiling in her gut. She would only have one chance at this.

“And what’s that, Miz Gershwin.”

“Devi, please,” Devi said amiably.

“Devi it is then.” Gev Horrton nodded his head.

“Power without compassion is the heart of a dying star.” Devi placed one card down face up and began the flip the next. “Eventually the equilibrium breaks and the star goes nova.”She didn’t break eye contact with Gev and saw his face begin to pale. She placed a finger on her last card and turned it over.

“A system that is so unbalanced cannot be sustained. And your system is now mine.”

The four cards on the table were one of the most unlikely combinations in the game, and also the most valuable. She had won by a landslide and the open-mouthed horror on Gev’s face was so sickly satisfying.

“Impossible! No! You’ve cheated!”

Devi raised her hands and wiggled her fingers. She had intentionally worn a sleeveless shirt that day so as to prevent any worry of cheating.

Gev looked at his secretary but the man was as ashen faced as Gev was. Gev had arrogantly walked himself into a corner and Devi had trapped him.

“Impossible!” Gev said and shot to his feet. He yanked at the gun on his secretary’s belt and pointed it at Devi. “You won’t get away with this!”

Devi slowly lifted herself to her feet and let a smile twist her mouth. It was not a kind smile. “I have won fair and square, Mr. Horrton. You agreed to this, and I think they are ready for a change.” Devi nodded at the men and women who made up Gev Horton’s cohort of bodyguards. She knew all their faces, all their names. They had all been children like her, torn from their families because of Gev’s tyranny, thrown to the literal and metaphorical wolves. It had taken ten years to save up for the tournament and ten years to recruit and maneuver over 300 men and women into the service of Gev Horrton. She had done more than won a card game and the city, she had won the hearts of its people. Two of the bodyguards were holding a vid camera and the feed was broadcasting across the city. Horrton had been in his castle and on his throne for so long he had lost touch with the elements that had gotten him there, and Devi had taken full advantage of that.

Gev’s hand shook and the gun trembled. His finger was dangerously close to the trigger. Devi just continued to smile at him and reached over the table where he had placed the city control chip. The gold glinted and the cool metal felt heavy in her hands.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of for the rest of your life somewhere where you can’t hurt anyone else.”

***

“Devi of pack Gershwin,” the wolf-like creature said and stood on its hind legs. The Veskers towered around her but Devi wasn’t afraid. She had been friends with these people from a very young age when they had saved her from the treacherous jungle where her family had perished.

“I have done as I promised. The city is yours,” Devi said and held up the gold chip.

The Vesker leader was named Kissk. He had been no more than a pup when he had found her as a child and brought her to his people. She had befriended them all and grew to love them as her own family.

“No, Devi of pack Gershwin. It is yours. We are a simple people. Now that we know of the worlds beyond the stars we too would like to become part of this society. Some of us will return to the jungles to live out our lives, but others, like myself will integrate into this society and make it ours from the inside out.” Kissk waved a paw at the Veskers behind him and they howled in agreement.

In the years since Kestevan had been built one of Gev Horrton’s primary suppression tactics had been on the sentient species of the Veskers. If the United Planetary Society had found out that this man had built a city on planet belonging to a civilization of pre-spaceflight peoples they would have sent an army to stop him and liberate the planet. Anyone who found out about the sentience of the Veskers or tried to send information off-planet was killed before any information they had could reach the responsible people.

“You will be our liaison, you will be our teacher, and you will be the leader of this city until such time that one of us understands it enough to take over. This is your oath?”

“This is my oath,” Devi said and grinned up at Kissk.

Devi waved at them to follow her and the pack of Veskers trailed after her past the opening in the shield wall and into the city.

The End

 

Finder and Follow Arbor Winter Barrow

⇓⇓⇓

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arborwinterbarrow.com

 

 

Short Story Friday

A Journalist Crosses the Line

a short story by Johi Jenkins

I am literally crossing the line, the journalist reflected with a final shred of doubt as she let go of the last of her inhibitions and jumped the fence into her target’s private property.
Emma was not one to cross lines, especially not ones that were clearly drawn and mandated by the law, but today her inquisitive side won over her rational, rule-abiding side, and she found herself scaling the concrete fence that shielded A-list celebrity heartthrob, Finn Holland, from would-be intruders such as herself. By crossing his property line she went from regular old intrusive paparazzi to full-on trespasser. And in celebrity journalism that was saying something. Her line of work blurred the ethics line big time, but property trespassing was definitely, indisputably, on the wrong side of the blur. This blatant disregard for his privacy would classify as downright obscene.
She had a compelling justification for her felony, though. His life might be in danger.
Last night, Finn posted some weird shit on his social media page: a poem, a message to his dead brother, and a black and white picture of himself as a teenager, smiling. The poem—about letting go—was received positively by his ten million followers, who all cheered for him in letting go of his cheating ex-girlfriend. The message to his brother was sweet, a reminder of his sensitive side; a guy who’s not afraid to show his love for his dearly departed ones. And the smiling teenager picture was adorable; there was nothing else to say there. His soft brown hair was a little bit longer than he wore it now, combed to the side in the fashion of the first half of the decade. The guy was hot then and he was hot now. His three posts got instant likes and reactions in the thousands, as usual.
Emma, however, was triggered by all of it.
A month ago, at the start of the summer, his fandom (the “Finnfatuated”) had all been shocked and thrilled when his girlfriend and fellow actor Megan Sheriff had been caught cozied up with veteran actor William Ardell. Finn’s page had been flooded with support.
How dare she? What a slut!
You don’t need that weasel, Finn! You’re better off.
Megan’s only doing Will for the money!
He’s producing her next movie!
Wow, she’s fucking her way to the top.
In response, Finn had posted a plea on his page to respect his privacy during this difficult time. It was ignored, of course, as everyone wanted to hear how he was handling the break up. Then he had shut himself in his large house, and celebrity journalists and paparazzi had flooded the gates despite his request, but after a few weeks their interest had abated. Now only some were still camped outside his gates, those who were placed there by top celebrity gossip magazines that could afford round-the-clock surveillance in the quest for that one elusive picture of Finn Holland crying his eyes out. Or destroying some property in a fit of rage. Or just ordering Thai food. Whatever he chose to do, whoever reported it first would get the money. His misery was their paycheck.
After a long month of not even stepping outside (how did he even eat? Was he like, living off of canned food and frozen dinners? The poor guy couldn’t even leave his house to go to the supermarket) Finn had finally posted again on his page last night, and his fans had gone wild over the poem, the loving tribute to his brother and the picture of him. They were relieved to hear from their obsession and excited that he seemed to be moving on.
But this fan—Emmanuelle Garza, celebrity reporter for top gossip magazine CSE (Celebrity Style Entertainment), was not convinced. She was not relieved. In fact, she was alarmed.
Was she the only one who saw it? The poem about letting go felt more about letting go of life, of everything in general, not just of a cheating ex. The loving tribute to his brother, to her, hinted of the possibility of reuniting with him. This brother, Phil, had died years ago (prior to Finn’s ascent in Hollywood and therefore something not widely known), and Finn had hardly ever mentioned him before. Why now? And the picture—it was a picture of a smiling Finn, sure, but it was a Finn from the past. A happy time when his brother was alive. Before the fame hit him like a speeding truck. Before his heart had been broken.
Finn had to be depressed. He sounded like it. He hadn’t left his house in a month. He was alone in there. And he shouldn’t be.
Emma was on the way to him now.
She shook her head to clear the dangerous images of finding Finn dead inside and hurried to cross the yard under cover of darkness. The lights were off in his house and it looked like there was no movement within. But she knew he was in there, thanks to fresh intel from a coworker who was getting paid right now to sit outside Finn’s house and watch his every move. Thanks to her job, she knew so many details about Finn. She knew what his house looked like inside; at least, the floor layout and major rooms. It was a dramatic one-story house surrounded by lush gardens and a concrete fence cast to look like stone. She also knew where best to jump said fence, as she had so easily done just now. And by having observed him for a long time, she knew that the kitchen sliding doors would be unlocked because Finn just didn’t care to ever lock them. She advanced to those doors now and silently prayed as she attempted to slide open one of the panes.
The door opened.
Emma was sure there must be a surveillance system currently recording her from some angle, there had to be, but she was also pretty sure that Finn Holland wasn’t currently sitting in front of the live feed and therefore would not see her. Or so she hoped.
The kitchen was not lit but there was enough light coming in from outside that she could see her way around. She stepped inside and crossed over to the hallway that would take her to the master bedroom. Her heart was racing but she kept on going. Everything was quiet except for the loud thump thump of her heart. What had she been thinking? That she could just waltz in there and that he’d be okay with it? She just wanted to check on him assuming that he was passed out or depressed, but she hadn’t really stopped to consider that he might just be perfectly fine and would throw her ass in jail for trespassing. The thought turned her blood to ice. She was next to his bedroom door now; another step and she could look inside. But she was still safe. She could still turn back. Maybe, if she was lucky, he wouldn’t even see the camera feed, if he never even guessed that someone had been inside his house.
She moved her left foot one step back. She started turning around—
And then she heard movement within.
She froze.
Light footsteps, then the sound of a cabinet or shelf opening. Low light flooded the frame of the door ahead of her, as though it was coming a room inside the bedroom. From a bathroom, maybe? The footsteps were faint, and she hoped the person, Finn or not, was indeed inside the bathroom because now she was pretty sure anyone would be able to hear her heart and stitched breathing.
Leave, she told herself. Go back go back go back!
But she didn’t. And then she heard an indiscernible mumble. A soft pop. Water running. And the sound of … pills??
Without another thought, her feet pushed her forward and she entered the bedroom. Her eyes zeroed in on his form. He was inside the bathroom leaning over the sink with one hand in a fist on the counter top, and the other clutching an open orange pill bottle.
“Finn!” she called.
“Fuck!” he jumped, straightened up and looked up at her. “Who the fuck are you?” His eyes went briefly down to his hand holding the bottle, then back at her. “What are you doing in my house??”
“I’m-I’m … I’m Emma. I’m just … I just want to know if you’re okay.” Her face rose in flames as the mini speech she had practiced earlier today didn’t come out. Whatever came out of her mouth was doing so without her conscious input. “I-I just … I just wanted to see if you were okay,” she repeated softly.
Again he looked down at his hands, and slowly opened the left hand which he had in a fist, and put down the bottle he held in the other.
“I’m not okay.” He turned over his left hand and a bunch of little pills fell on the polished granite of his bathroom countertop, scattering around.
“I’m sorry,” she said, from the entrance to his bedroom where her feet had taken her and then frozen her in place.
He looked up at her, from the twenty feet or so that separated them. It’s like he was seeing her for the first time. “How did you get in?”
“I jumped the fence by the palm trees. I came in through the back door by the kitchen.”
“But why?”
“I wanted to … check on you.” She was aware that she was repeating herself, but she couldn’t do anything about it. It was like someone else was saying the words that were coming out of her mouth. “Those things you posted last night. Was that you? You … sounded like you could use a friend.”
He snorted angrily. “And you’re that friend? I don’t know you at all. I’m … I should be calling the cops.” He straightened up and looked around as if looking for his phone.
“Wait!” Emma cried, holding up her hands in front of her, as if that could keep him from calling the cops. “I’m sorry I came in here like this. I’m sorry people just assume they know you, just because we know about you. I know I’m not supposed to be here. I know you don’t know me. But I was worried about you after you posted that, and I thought maybe something had happened to you.” Her arms dropped limply by her sides.
He was silent for a moment, then he advanced on her. She was still frozen to the spot and couldn’t move an inch as he approached. He lifted an arm and she cowered before his tall frame … but he only reached behind her to turn on the bedroom lights.
Now clearly lit, she could see the room was a mess. There were piles of clothes thrown about, empty glasses everywhere, and a … was that a bong upturned next to the bed? But of more immediate concern was the loosely-clothed man in front of her. It was truly him, Finn Holland, dressed in a sweaty t-shirt and boxer briefs. Her heart hurt for him, seeing him like this. She made herself look up at his face. He hadn’t shaved in weeks, she noticed, and possibly not bathed in a long while too, considering the smell coming off him. His light brown eyes were tired, and his dark hair was longer than the last time she had seen it, falling a little over his eyes. Eyes that were staring at her just as she was staring at him.
Searching.
“I was about to kill myself,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m not sure I would’ve really done it, though, when you distracted me. I guess I’ll know soon enough.” He grabbed her upper arm as if to drag her through the house and kick her out, and get on with his sinister business. But he didn’t attempt to move her. He just looked at her. “Why are you crying?”
“What the fuck, Finn,” she whispered, not realizing her eyes were full of unshed tears until he pointed it out. Hearing her suspicions confirmed—he had really considered suicide!—had twisted her insides with pain. She looked away and blinked, and a tear fell down her cheek. She hastily brushed it away. “Please don’t do it. Why would you even say that? Please don’t. Don’t!” She looked up again into his eyes, pleading. “You can’t. Not like this. You have … so much to live for. You have ten million followers. Ten million people who love you, who would give anything to be here, where I am, telling you the same thing. Don’t do it … please.” She blinked and another tear fell out.
He let go of her arm and took a step back, then sat on his bed. “Those people don’t give a shit about me. I don’t belong to them. My choices are mine. I’m not your zoo animal that you put in a cage and observe for your entertainment. I have feelings. I have …” he trailed off. He took a deep breath. “I have nothing. I’m in this cage and I have nothing.”
“That’s not true. You have everything. You’re so talented, and so … compassionate. You truly inspire people. I have a little brother who loves you. A couple of years ago I took him to Comic Con because he wanted your autograph. We waited in line for hours, but he didn’t care for the wait because he really wanted to see you. He was in a wheelchair and was so weak from chemo, but I took him anyway, because you were his favorite superhero …”
Finn had starred in several movies as a teenager, but he had really catapulted to stardom with his role as Balthier, the intergalactic superhero. All three Balthier movies had been box office hits. Four years ago, the Balthier cast had appeared in Comic Con promoting the second movie; Emma had taken her brother Jackson, who had been ten years old back then, and very sick, just to grant his wish of meeting Balthier in real life. She had paid a lot of money just to get Jackson a VIP thing which really only meant a picture with Finn Holland and an autograph. As they waited in line, she saw Finn smile for each photo op ahead of them. She had snorted each time thinking those smiles were super fake and that his job probably sucked. But when it was finally their turn, his fake smile at her only lasted a split second before his eyes settled on Jackson. And Finn’s face transformed—his smile became so genuine and sweet. He showed concern and honest interest in the little bald boy in the wheelchair. And he did something for Jackson that he didn’t do for anyone else. He talked to the boy. He asked Jackson whether he was okay, whether he could walk, that sort of thing. And even though Jackson didn’t mention the cancer, Finn hugged him and whispered in his ear, “You’re way stronger than I could ever hope to be.” As he bent down to hug her brother, Emma saw sincere affection in his eyes. She had loved Finn Holland ever since.
“Jackson,” Finn whispered now, as Emma inhaled in shock that he remembered not just her brother, but also his name. “His name was Jackson.”
“Yes. He … he’s okay now,” she added quickly, because she could see in his eyes that Finn was remembering her brother’s frail form and had assumed the worst.
Finn’s eyes lit up at the positive update. “Really?”
Still shocked, she sat down on the bed without thinking, a few feet away from him. “Yeah. He got a bone marrow transplant and he’s in remission now. He almost didn’t make it, though, and I’ll never know if it was you, but he was so different after meeting you. That’s why I know you’re a good guy. Because of how you chose to make him feel so special when you could’ve easily chosen to treat him like anyone else.”
“Wow,” Finn said, visibly relaxing and running a hand through his unkempt hair. “He made it. I’m so glad for him.” He looked sideways at her, the corner of his lips turning up in a ghost of a smile. “I’ve been regretting ever being in that stupid film. But now I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.”
Emma thought she knew why he would say he regretted it. Balthier’s love interest was the human Cherise, played by rising actress Megan Sheriff. The two actors met on set and started dating. They were what everyone ever talked about, and for years they couldn’t go on a date without people following them and speculating whether they’d get married soon.
Until she got caught with her lips locked around William Ardell’s, the super famous actor, heartthrob for two decades, now producer and power player in Hollywood.
“Was it … that bad?” Emma whispered now.
He looked up briefly at her, then down at a spot in his dirty shirt. He was still smiling a bit, but the smile was sad. “I loved her. I thought she loved me, too.”
“I’m sorry.” She thought about putting an arm on his shoulder, comforting him, but she didn’t. “Just know, a bunch of us love you, and you don’t love us back. And we’re okay with that. You can’t control who loves you.”
His smile widened and he rolled his eyes. “Forget Megan, I’m over her. The thing that hurt, what really got to me, was how the media made such a circus out of it. Like I’m not a real person. And when I sat down to think about it, I realized that in the greater scheme of things, it really didn’t matter if I lived or died. But to me, I wouldn’t have to endure them, if I was dead.”
Emma cringed at the word dead. “The greater scheme of things is what doesn’t actually matter here. Our individual lives do. Our happiness matters to us, and that’s why we stay alive. To find happiness. If your current situation doesn’t make you happy, switch it and find something else that does.”
He made a sound that might have been a laugh, but he didn’t reply right away, so she continued.
“I know you probably think I’m just a creep snooping around your business, and you’d be right, but I just wanted to show you some perspective. That to me, you’re a great guy, and you deserve to do what makes you happy. You don’t deserve to be living like this.”
He followed her gaze around the room and then snorted, a half amused, half embarrassed sound.
“I’m a mess, aren’t I? Maybe I should clean up, and shave, so they don’t pity me when they find my dead body.” He looked at her face, and suddenly burst out laughing. “I’m joking! Dude, you should see the look on your face.”
Emma balked. “Dude. Don’t joke about that,” she all but yelled at him, this guy who could terminate her career and put her in jail with a quick phone call. “I mean … please don’t joke about that.”
He ignored her chastising tone. “So, you said you loved me?” His voice was still playful.
“Um, what?”
“You said, ‘a bunch of us love you.’ Did you mean like, love love me?” There was definitely mirth in is voice and a glimmer in his eye that wasn’t there before. “I’m thinking, I don’t want Megan to be the last person I fucked before I die.”
Emma stood up in a flash and looked down at him, a reproachful look on her face. “Please stop saying that!”
Finn stood up as well, now very close to her, clearly enjoying making her angry. “Saying what?”
“The thing … about dying.”
“I’m going to die eventually. You want me to live for a while, right? Should I not have sex with anyone ever again?”
Emma looked down at his bare legs. They were nice legs. “No, I meant … the part where you said …”
He took a step forward and put his arms around her, but held her six inches away from him. She froze. She had not anticipated this.
His voice turned husky. “Help me forget.”
What the F—Finn, she thought.
Okay, time to reassess.
Was he asking her to have sex with him? Yes, it was very possible that that was what he meant. Was he serious? Maybe, maybe not. Hard to tell. If he was serious, the real question was, what was she going to do about it? Finn Freaking Holland, her obsession of the past four years, a huge celebrity hot star, asking her (offering?) to have possibly empty sex. Okay, definitely empty sex. She had zero chance of actually meaning something to him, other than a person who conveniently showed up in his house with a vagina and other fun body parts.
What if she said yes? So what if she felt like he was asking to use her? It’s not like he was lying, charming her trying to get in her pants. He was being upfront about it. He wanted to fuck someone else to help him get over his ex. If she agreed, she could potentially be helping him. And, she could forever say that she’d had sex with Finn Holland! But should she promote the stigma that celebrities can have anyone they ever want, without any regard to the other person’s feelings? Or was it okay if both people knew they were sort of using each other?
The thoughts took too long to form into any semblance of resistance, and her body had already moved closer to him. He was so tall. Her lips reached his shoulder, and she bent forward to press them against his shirt.
Ew.
She would’ve stripped right then and there, but for the formidable scent that was rolling off him. Yes, she wanted to fuck him and be fucked by him, no matter the inevitably painful outcome that she knew, deep down, would follow; but she also knew she would doubly regret it if it was like this. Sad, quick and dirty.
She lifted her head and smiled. “Guy, buy a girl some dinner first.”
She felt his chuckle resonate through his chest. He let her go and took a step back. His flirtatious smile was a sight to behold. “Maybe I will. But first …” he lifted his arm and brought his nose to his armpit, then made a face. “I need a shower.”
Emma didn’t respond other than smiling encouragingly. She didn’t want to say Yeah boy, you stink, but she also didn’t want to say something completely fake like, No, I love your smell, you smell like roses.
He turned to go back to his bathroom and stopped mid-step, turning to look at her just as she was looking around the room trying to figure out what to do. “What … do I do with you?” he asked. “I mean … what are you going to do, just … wait here?”
“I was wondering the same thing. Do you, uh, want me to go?” The words came out strained. Yes, she was a total stranger in his house and he should feel awkward leaving her alone in his bedroom. She would’ve agreed with him if he told her to wait outside and locked his door. But she also didn’t want to leave him alone.
“Keep me company?” he offered. “You can just … sit there and talk to me. If you want.” He pointed behind him through the door of the bathroom. She looked and saw that there was a lounging chair next to a window. “That’s where I smoke when I need to blow off some steam,” he explained.
“You smoke cigarettes?” she asked, horrified, then immediately regretted the judgment in her voice.
“Who said cigarettes?”
“Oh.”
“Um, you don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” he said a bit sheepishly, and she thought he sounded adorable although she couldn’t tell if he was telling her she didn’t have to smoke or go sit there while he took a shower.
“I’d love to talk more with you,” she replied.
“Awesome.” He smiled, and took off his shirt.
Holy shit! She looked away, blushing. Of course, she’d seen him shirtless plenty of times on the screen, but there was something awfully intimate about seeing his bare chest, seeing him standing in just his underwear, not five feet from where she stood. In real life.
“Are you being prudish?” he asked, and because she refused to look up, she couldn’t see the smile he offered her, but she could tell it was there from his teasing tone.
“No,” she almost stuttered. “I’m just giving you some privacy.”
“I’m beginning to feel that with you, I’m not sure I want privacy. But thanks. I don’t get much of that around here.”
With a soft thud, she saw the boxer briefs follow the shirt to the floor as her blush deepened. Oh, boy. She could’ve looked. She so wanted to look. But her eyes remained glued to the floor. Then a second later his feet turned around and headed into the bathroom, and he disappeared inside the shower.
“Alright, Miss Emma, I’m in. Come on back,” he called, as he turned on the jets in the shower.
Her insides turned to jelly at his mention of her name. Had she told him her name? Yes, she had, only once, and she hadn’t been sure he was even listening to her. But then, he remembered Jackson’s name from years ago. Maybe he was one of those people who are good with names.
She crossed the door into his bathroom and was halfway into admiring how amazing it was—charcoal granite, white marble, chrome finishes, glass—like, not frosted but fully see-through glass!—and had to avert her eyes because his ass was right there for her to see, in the shower. She practically ran to the lounging chair and sat on it deliberately looking the other way.
“Are you usually this trusting with everyone you meet?” she asked, of his being naked in front of a total stranger.
“No, just with the ones that break into my house and save my life.”
Saved his life? Is that what she had done? He had said he wasn’t sure if he’d really do it. But he had considered it, at least. She looked to the countertop where the empty bottle of pills sat like a depressing reminder. She wanted to get up and grab all the little pills scattered around and throw them down the drain, except she had read somewhere you shouldn’t discard medicine down the drain because the wastewater treatment plants didn’t filter out drugs, and they would end up in the waterways.
“How did you know?” His voice was soft, muffled by the sound of running water.
“I didn’t really know …”
“Oh come on. You broke into my house just to say hey you, cheer up?
“Okay, no. Yes, I strongly suspected.” She took a deep breath. “It was your posts. Your poem was so sad. It sounded like you meant to let go of everything. The bit about the sun setting was what got to me, what made me think, oh wait, this sounds more than just sad. I felt you were trying to hint … something. But I wouldn’t have thought of breaking into your house on that alone. Your message to your brother … then the picture …”
She couldn’t finish her sentence. She couldn’t say out loud that he sounded suicidal for fear it might trigger those same thoughts again. She waited for him to reply, but he didn’t say anything. For a while there was only the sound of the water running, and then that stopped, and he still didn’t say anything. She dared a sneak glance to him, and saw he was lathering with some soap.
Finally he spoke. “Emma?”
“Yeah?”
“Will you tell me about yourself?”
“Oh, I’m … so boring.”
“Please?”
She smiled to herself. “Okay but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
And so she gave him some unexciting facts about herself: about her normal childhood and her normal life. She had been born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, very middle class, and had only the one little brother. She listed her favorite TV shows and books; the things that might tell him her likes and dislikes. Every now and then she paused and asked him if she should stop now, but he seemed engrossed in the details of her average existence and asked her to go on. She told him she was a year younger than him (twenty-three), and had graduated college only the year before. Her parents were dentists and she could tell they were a little disappointed that she didn’t follow in their footsteps. She had gotten into journalism in high school, and gone that route in college, getting a bachelors degree in journalism at USC (University of Southern California). She wanted to report the news but quickly got disenchanted with her career, as she was only able to find a job at celebrity magazine CSE. And though she shouldn’t complain because she had an okay job and lived in a good neighborhood, she was twenty-three and living with a roommate, and still had to occasionally sell pictures of celebrities to make ends meet.
At this point Finn laughed in sudden disbelief. She turned to see him stepping out of the shower, his lower half wrapped in a towel. He had shaved in shower, and looked like the Finn from Hollywood—hot rich guy, unreachable. His whole demeanor had changed. He didn’t look happy. “So wait. Are you telling me you’re a freaking paparazzi?
“Journalist,” she corrected under her breath, completely embarrassed. She looked down, feeling trapped. Of course he would assume she was there just for the story. She felt her picture ought to be under the entry for hypocrite in the online encyclopedia. The one thing he had avoided for a whole month, and he was currently half naked in front of one of them. Except she wasn’t really one of them—but how to convey that to him so that he believed her? “The pictures are just as a side gig to help with my living expenses,” she tried to explain. “I live only thirty minutes from here, and I come to Hollywood a lot for work, so I bought a camera and I’ve gotten some photos.”
“Why are you really here?” He was defensive, way more detached than he had been twenty minutes before.
She stood up from the lounge chair and made herself look at him, despite her sudden urge to run, to get away. But she had to tell him. “I promise you—I swear—I’m not here for a story. I’m here for the reason I told you; I’m here for you. I’m not here for work. I write stupid articles about fad diets and dating for CSE, and I don’t even diet or date. I hate my job. The pictures I’ve sold have all been girl celebrities walking around town doing normal person stuff like getting coffee or getting their hair done.”
He was silent for a moment. Then he walked toward her as he asked quietly, “Did you ever take pictures of me?”
She looked away, embarrassed. “Yes.” Her voice almost broke, along with her heart. She was the bad guy here, and she felt so ashamed. And so, so afraid. Afraid of losing him, whatever little thing this was that they’d shared tonight. “I’ve been … into you”—she didn’t want to say the correct word, obsessed, because it sounded so negative, so she settled with into you—“since I met you in person at Comic Con four years ago. You barely even glanced at me, but I loved how you surprised me being this whole different person than I had presumed you to be. I just thought you were cool, so I read up on you, became your fan.” She smiled sadly. “I guess being your fan I just assumed I could take pictures of you, but now that I think about it, I shouldn’t have. No one should. I’ll delete all of them. In front of you, if you’d like. I wouldn’t even mind; I don’t actually like any of them.” She was rambling, she knew, but she was so mortified and sad and angry at herself and her whole profession. “I don’t think of myself as a creep. I’m here because I just like you. I kinda love you. Oh, wow, shit, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry. I’m going to—I should just—”
“It’s okay.” His voice was low and calm, and right next to her.
“Huh?” She turned to look at him, and his face was absolutely nothing like she had expected.
He raised his hands and placed them gently at her cheeks. “It’s okay,” he repeated. Then he bent down and kissed her.
Oh.
Ohh … Finn.
Her brain came up with reasons why he’d kiss her, ugly ones, and tried to point out all the reasons why this was wrong. But nothing stuck; her thoughts scrambled and she responded on pure instinct. She wanted this for herself as much as she wanted him to be happy. She brought her hands to the back of his neck and pulled him closer to her; pressed herself against his naked chest. His kisses were so soft and deep and very passionate. Almost desperate. But there was also a genuine sweetness to them, to the way he held her. As if she meant something to him. Something good.
He stopped kissing her for a second, and whispered against her lips. “You scared me.”
“I scared you?” she repeated him, confused.
“For a second there, I thought you were here for … well, for business. I’m sorry if I was weird a minute ago.” He stepped back a few inches, but dropped his arms to her waist, keeping her near.
“I’d understand if you were angry,” she said.
He shook his head and brought his forehead down to hers. “I wasn’t angry. I was just scared. Emma, I don’t know what stroke of luck it was that you came into my life at my lowest point. It can’t just be a coincidence that you came in right as I was trying to end it. Maybe I did die, and I’m just living some weird afterlife fantasy.”
Ughh please don’t say that.” She stepped out of his arms. She didn’t mean to push him away, but every time he talked about dying, her gut churned. “The part about dying, I mean. The other part … well, I did stand outside your bedroom door for a minute, considering turning back.”
“What made you come in?”
“I was about to turn back when the bathroom light turned on. And I heard … the bottle popping open.”
He looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “Jesus. I meant to do it yesterday, but I didn’t. I don’t know why, but I waited. Then I spent the entire day today feeling like there was no way out … I told you, like it didn’t matter anyway whether I lived or died. So … I made the decision, got out of bed and grabbed the pills. And then you were just there. Isn’t that strange to you? You could’ve jumped my fence half an hour after you did, and you would’ve found me dead. But it didn’t happen that way. You were meant to save me. You’re my hero. And I feel like … I don’t know. Like I don’t ever want to let you go.”
Did he really just say that? She blushed deeply, and stepped back into his arms, placing a cheek on his shoulder. He held her tightly. “Whatever it was, fate or coincidence, or even God, I’m so glad it didn’t go the other way,” she said.
“Me too.”
She could’ve stayed like this forever. But his bare skin shifted her thoughts elsewhere. “Please get dressed,” she said playfully. “I’m kind of freaking out here, with you this naked.”
He laughed and took a step back. “Prude,” he joked, turning to go into his closet (which was huge, of course, and had two doors, one of them directly inside the bathroom).
She walked back to his bedroom, trying to admire its size and furniture past the mess, when she heard his voice from inside the closet. “You don’t have to delete the pictures.”
“I can. I should. I really don’t like any of them.”
“What, I look like an asshole, or …?”
She chuckled. “No. It’s just … I don’t have a single picture of you alone.”
On three occasions she had seen Finn out and about, but he had always been with his ex. Emma had taken several pictures but didn’t like any of them. Megan was always so perfectly casual but so ditzy. And Finn never smiled while they were out together.
“Oh,” he said, understanding. “Yeah, you can burn them.” He stepped out of the closet in a fresh t-shirt and jeans. “Ready to go outside?”
“Outside?? I thought you meant dinner like popcorn or something.”
“I think I need the fresh air. I need to get over this fear of showing myself to others. I don’t think I was meant for Hollywood. I kinda suck at this fame thing.” Then he paused, looking at her, as if considering her. “But what about you? If we go outside together … you’ll get dragged into my drama.” He sighed, a trace of annoyance in his eyes. “I suspect Megan will come back. Balthier is done so luckily we don’t have to work together anymore, but she’s power hungry and she knows this gossip thing only fuels her publicity, good or bad. I’m going to tell her to go to hell, but the stupid press—no offense—”
“—none taken—”
“—will do whatever they can to make us look like we’re back together, no matter what I say or do. So I should warn you. I don’t give a fig about her, and I don’t care to even pretend to be back with her for publicity, but they’re likely going to make it seem that way. And if they see you with me, they might portray you in a negative light. You know how it is. They don’t even care about the legal consequences of defamation.”
Emma thought about it. She certainly didn’t like drama and she wasn’t ready to have people scrutinizing her life. But worst of all, she feared that she’d fall in love with him absurdly fast, and then have her heart broken if it turned out badly.
But she wanted him. She closed her eyes and for a second dared to contemplate a life with him. And she wanted it. Even if it was just a chance at being with him. She was willing to pay the price.
She walked up to him, and grabbed his hands in hers. “I don’t mind. Besides … it’s just dinner, right?”
He looked down into her eyes. “Right. Just dinner.” His voice was melodious.
“But it doesn’t have to be just dinner,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed talking to you. I’d like to … get to know you more.”
“That would make me … so happy,” he said, bending down to kiss her once more.
This time they didn’t stop for a long time.
The bed was like, right there. Emma figured, why make out standing up when they could do so more comfortably sitting on his bed? So at some point they transferred their make-out session to the bed and were now lying side-by-side, staring in each other’s eyes, dinner forgotten.
“I was thinking,” she started.
“Yeah?”
“What if we go outside and we get hit by a car?”
“What?”
“Yeah and then we die and Megan would’ve been the last person you fucked.”
He burst out laughing. He lifted his torso and propped himself on an elbow, and stared down at her, eyes twinkling. “Yeah, that would be awful, right?”
She was smiling coyly. “Yeah, awful. So, we could do something about that, if you wanted.”
“If I wanted!” he repeated, laughing again. “Trust me, I … wanted … since I put a hand on your arm.” He traced his fingers on her upper arm where he’d first touched her, in what seemed like hours ago. “Or maybe it was right after I turned on the bedroom light and saw your face clearly.”
“No way.”
“Yes way. I even asked you, but you weren’t interested. Sorry I asked, by the way. I shouldn’t have assumed you’d be okay with that.”
“Oh, but I was. It’s just that … you just smelled … so bad.”
He inhaled sharply in mock offense, then rolled on top of her, grinning. “Oh no you didn’t. You … crossed the line!”

***

 

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Short Story Friday

Parkway Picnic

by 

Anne Marie Andrus

 

“Are you freakin’ kidding me?” I shouted at the six lanes of southbound traffic that slowed to a miserable crawl and then ground to a complete stop.

     Never should have agreed to go in on this ridiculous shore house with my friends. Never.

I unbuckled an antique lap belt and hoisted myself through the old car’s sunroof. Red brake lights snaked ahead for miles.

     Way back in January,No thank you,” had been on the tip of my tongue. But everyone insisted I get out more—find a man—up my game. I’ve met every doctor, lawyer, accountant and stockbroker in this state. Boo, not interested.

Across the median’s concrete barrier, the northbound lanes were eerily empty.

     That’s a lousy sign. Looks a bit like my love-life.

I slumped down in my seat just as sirens blared and strobes lit up the rear-view mirror. Police cars wove down the gravelly shoulder followed by firetrucks, wreckers and a lone ambulance.

     If one ambulance is all they need, maybe it’s just a fender bender?

I fished for a tablet in my backpack and scrolled to the traffic app. Bright red lines in both directions were punctuated by a slew of orange circles with lines through the middle. I banged my forehead on the steering wheel until a muffled bark and wet nose brought me back to reality.

“Oh, puppy. It’s you and me against world, right?” I rubbed fluffy ears. “And I’m sure you have to pee.”

Buried under folding chairs, a mini barbecue grill and my bundle of beach towels, I found a leash.

The car sputtered and stalled.

     Damn jalopy. At least it won’t overheat.

I reached out and checked the pavement with my hand. “Too hot for you, little Bonnie.” I hoisted the tawny furball into my arms and knocked the car door shut with my hip. Two lanes away, the grassy median beckoned. I squeezed past a conversion van covered in bible-verse bumper stickers. Inside tightly rolled up windows, the driver blasted show tunes and conducted an invisible orchestra to his own private musical. A silver-haired woman in the car next to him pointed and laughed. I giggled and waved to her with one of Bonnie’s paws.

While I looked around, the puppy sniffed the grass, investigating the scent of every soul that had stopped here before.

     What is that rumble? Can’t be thunder. Maybe a dragon?

I swallowed hard as if I were on a plane, trying to relieve eardrum pressure. A few seconds of silence fell over the crowded highway before the crystal-clear sky exploded into chaos.

     Helicopters!

One—two—three! Medevac choppers roared overhead, low enough for me to read the numbers on their bellies. I spun to check for another as the leash snapped against my wrist. Searing heat shot through my ankle just before my shoulder crashed against the edge of the pavement.

Screams and slamming doors echoed in my skull as I scrambled, desperately searching for the leash. Invisible hands came from all directions, sitting me up and brushing me off.

“Bonnie!” I pushed everyone away. “I lost my dog!”

“Don’t worry dear.” A lady in hospital scrubs handed me an ice pack for my ankle, took my pulse and looked deep in both eyes. “A young man ran after the pup.” Apparently satisfied I would live, she peered past me. “And . . . he’s got her.”

“Small miracle I didn’t hit my head.” I accepted a gauze pad from over my shoulder and held it against my skinned elbow. I turned to see the four-pronged base of a cane and followed the trail of oxygen tubing to a tan, smiling face.

“I have a first aid kit, dear.” The silver-haired woman patted my good shoulder. “For just this situation.”

“How klutzy am I? A blind person could see that—” I gestured toward the rough curb.

“Here you go, miss.” A silken baritone voice swept over me as calloused palms placed a wiggly puppy in my lap. “What a perfect angel. Half terrier, half collie?”

“She’s a rescue so, probably a little of everything. Thank you so much for—” I kissed Bonnie’s fuzzy head and looked up at the good Samaritan who retrieved her.

     Whoa.

“Thank you…” I read the letters on his navy-blue work shirt. Beveled Edge Blacksmith Shop. Is that even a thing? My gaze wandered over his sculpted biceps, past his perfectly trimmed goatee and up to dancing emerald eyes. “Ummm, you’re totally covered in dog hair.”

“You’re very welcome.” The man started to brush off his chest and tossed his arms up. “Mud, dog hair, horse hair…all day. Everyday. I may be hopeless.”

“You can’t be from around here.”

“Of course, I am. Born and raised.” The man offered his hand and helped me to my feet. “I’m Justin.”

“I’m Grace.” I looked at my bruised knees and handful of bloody gauze. “Just a name, not a description.”

“Come on, Miss Grace. I have water and snacks in the cooler. Enough for everyone.” He waved all the bystanders toward his shiny pick-up truck, stopping to make sure the silver-haired woman’s cane was firmly planted on flat pavement. “Ma’am, what’s better than a Friday night Parkway Picnic?”

Butterflies swirled in my stomach and tiny sparks danced in my throat. I hoisted Bonnie in my arms and whispered in her ear. “Okay, so I maybe I haven’t met every man in New Jersey.”

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